Lawmakers use sports events to score cash

  Some members of Congress have devised their own form of March Madness, using the NCAA men's basketball tournament and other spring sports events as popular fundraisers.
By David Lightman
McClatchy Newspapers; Seattle Times March 2011

  WASHINGTON — Some members of Congress have devised their own form of March Madness, using the NCAA men's basketball tournament and other spring sports events as popular fundraisers.

  This weekend and during the next few weeks lawmakers will host donors at a Sweet 16 basketball doubleheader, at baseball's spring training and opening-day games, and at pro hockey and basketball games.

  Price of admission: Often $1,000 or more.

  Ethics watchdogs say such events give lobbyists lengthy access to lawmakers and a chance to bond in an informal, entertaining setting that other citizens can't match. Lobbyists counter that they're doing their jobs, the fundraisers are legal and contributions fully disclosed, and they get to know legislators in a casual setting.

  Invitations from lawmakers obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, an independent watchdog group, offer previews:

  • Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., plans to host a three-day "All Sports Weekend," starting Friday, featuring two days of golf, a Phoenix Suns basketball game, spring training and "all meals." Contribution: $2,500 per person.

  • Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., invited donors to the NCAA eastern regional games in Newark on Friday at $1,500 a head.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is featuring baseball. Saturday's event is scheduled to start with a 1 p.m. reception, a 5 p.m. "pregame party" and a Boston Red Sox game in Fort Myers. A "host" can give $5,000, while individuals can partake for $1,000.

  • Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., plans to host hockey fans next Tuesday at Washington's Verizon Center when the Washington Capitals play the Carolina Hurricanes. Admission to his quarters requires donations ranging from $500 to $2,500.

  • Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.; Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.; Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Wasserman Schultz each intend to host separate fundraisers at the Verizon Center in Washington next Wednesday when the Washington Wizards play the Miami Heat. Deutch promises a "private suite."

  "Sporting events are ideal for lobbyists," said Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, an independent congressional watchdog. "You get to talk to the member and root for the congressman's team. It's a lot better than going to an opera, where all you can do is sit and listen."

  Such events give pay-to-play insiders a chance to chat with influential lawmakers that most Americans don't have, Holman said. Since most games last two to three hours and feature timeouts or breaks between innings, there's lots of get-to-know-you time.

  Lobbyists say the games are valuable opportunities for them to do their jobs.

  "Fundraisers give lobbyists a chance to talk about issues. A sports event in a skybox gives you a chance to form a more personal relationship," said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists.

  Part of the lobbyists' dilemma these days is that gift bans that went into effect last year make it harder to form such relationships. Marlowe argues that the ban has taken away a valuable tool, the ability to talk outside the frenetic office environment.

  Lawmakers reject the idea that anyone buys special access or that sports events are any different from any other campaign event.

  "Congressman Clyburn doesn't see a difference in holding a fundraiser at a sporting event as opposed to a dinner or reception," said Hope Derrick, Clyburn's communications director. "While some supporters might prefer a meal, others prefer sports, so the congressman holds events that appeal to a variety of interests."

  Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, points out that the congresswoman holds numerous events that are free and open to the public in her South Florida district, including one this week marking the anniversary of the health-care law.

  She likes sports events because they're fun and interesting, Beeton said, and are "something that's outside the stuffy Washington mold."

  Becerra's office noted that he's a longtime proponent of public financing for congressional campaigns, but until that's enacted, he'll follow present law and raise the money he needs.

  Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for openness in government, doesn't like the sports-as-fundraiser setup.

  "If it was purely calling a member of Congress for an appointment in his office to make their case, no one would have a problem with that," he said. "But when you show up with a check for $2,500, things are different."

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.